I listened to the most recent episode of This American Life entitled “Retraction.” “Retraction” has drawn a lot of attention because the initial episode that appeared on the show, “Mr. Daisey Goes to the Apple Factory,” proved to have a number of misleading and fabricated parts in its story.
If you haven't read about the matter or the viewpoints about the story, there are plenty of sites, writers, and bloggers on the Internet who are discussing Mike Daisey, journalistic integrity, and the treatment of workers in Apple factories. That is not what my blog post will focus in on. I'd rather look to raise questions about some of the views that Daisey and host Ira Glass brought up about the theater and how that relates to stand-up comedy, joke writing, and performance.
In the episode, Daisey sits down with Glass to discuss the facts that were at issue in his original monologue. The interview is awkward with, at times, long pauses where Daisey contemplates what to say. Ultimately, he is only apologetic that he presented the piece on a show like This American Life when he believes it to be more theater than it is journalism.
At one point, Daisey remarks, “I believe that when I perform it in a theatrical context in the theater that when people hear the story in those terms we have different languages for what the truth means.”
Glass, as an observer of theater does not agree with this perspective, and later states, “I know but I feel like I have the normal worldview. The normal worldview is somebody stands on stage and says 'this happened to me.' I think it happened to them, unless it's clearly labeled as 'here's a work of fiction.'
Based off both Daisey's remark as a performer and Glass's remark as a viewer, I can see both sides of it as a stand-up comedian, though I lean towards Glass's perspective. I think what led to this circumstance being such an issue is that it was presented on what is normally a radio program that is a beacon of journalistic integrity, and that the serious issue of worker's rights should not be toyed with factually. However, in what these two men say for the sake of performance and facts in general, it sparks many more questions.
My act now involves more storytelling than it ever has before. I take personal stories that have happened to me in my life and turn them into jokes. Are those stories fake? Not at all. Have I changed things in the truth of the story because it is best for the timing and telling of the joke? Yes, but not that it dramatically changes how the story actually happened. Do I know of other comedians who have done that as well? Definitely.
I've spoken to comedians about some of their jokes that they have told over time. I've heard everything from them from “That never actually happened” (something I don't understand and something presumably Glass would not appreciate as well) to “It was actually this person who said that to me and not that person” to “I combined two different stories into one.” Different adjustments arise in order to make a personal story even funnier in terms of joke construction. So, essentially, we understand on a foundational level what Daisey is saying. It is a performance, and as such, I have to do what's best for the performance.
On the flip side, Glass says that when a performer says 'this happened to me,' it is expected to be the truth. That is true, but the main question at hand is what is the extent to that truth? Does every word have to be accurate? Just every situation? Obviously, we also have to look at the magnitude of the story. There's a major difference between what exactly my mother said to me when pouring another pile of Indian food on to my plate as opposed to whether a worker revealed to Daisey that she was 13 years old and working at a factory. Additionally, there may be a difference between a serious monologue and stand-up comedy. Does an audience do as Glass says and expect the truth at a serious show like that but in the world of stand-up comedy does not expect the truth even if it is presented to them as a 'this happened to me joke'?
In 2010, I enjoyed my drive up to Christmas with my family by listening to This American Life's “Comedians of Christmas” comedy special. It was a hilarious and touching mix of stories from several great comedians that are regular contributors to the show. But, imagine if one of these stories was not true. What if there were fabrications within these supposedly truthful stories? Does This American Life retract this episode? Why is truth expected in one case but not in another case? Is it just because of how lighthearted the story is comparatively? Is it because this is expected as performance and not as fact? Is it because it is truly more personal and does not involve a much bigger political issue?
I'm not sure that I have a definitive point in this blog post other than the fact that the Mike Daisey situation brings up a lot of questions even about authenticity and performance within stand-up comedy and how our audiences view us. On a personal level, I do my best to represent myself as I want to be represented and to provide truthful, funny material. But, certainly, I've made edits to actual stories to ensure that the performance is better and funnier.
In the end, I think Mike Daisey for whatever reason wants to believe that he can have a stand-up comedian type of perspective on a performance, but he cannot when there's a bigger issue at hand that he is tackling. That's when you grab the expectations of the audience. They are caught up in the importance and reality of your subject matter. For stand-up comedians, perhaps it's easier. The audience arrives with an expectation that there may be fiction in this world. The subject matters are normally much more absurd and less serious.
The main question to ask is, regardless of subject matter, if a performance on any stage is personal, how much does the audience expect for it to be the truth and how much honesty should the performer be giving? I think the perspectives of both Mike Daisey and Ira Glass have exposed us to that question not having a clear answer.